Oldspeak: “You know you the shit when you can hustle Oprah… Ms. Byrne made out like a fat rat, selling limitless materialistic indulgence by promising to collapse thousands of years of religious faith and spirituality into one minimalist creed. The result is a pair of religious books curiously devoid of ancient lore and esoteric beliefs, history and holiness—curiously devoid of religion itself. Snake oil salesperson for the 21st Century.”
From Kalefah Sanneh @ The New Yorker:
On February 8, 2007, Oprah Winfrey greeted her television audience by brandishing a DVD and asking, “Have you heard about it?” The DVD was “The Secret,” a low-budget inspirational documentary that was already a cult favorite; with Winfrey’s endorsement, it went mainstream. “My guests today believe that once you discover the Secret, that you can immediately start creating the life you want, whether it’s getting out of debt, whether it’s finding a more fulfilling job, even falling in love,” Winfrey said. “They say you can have it all, and, in fact, you already hold the power to make that happen.” After Winfrey interviewed the film’s creator, a former television producer from Australia named Rhonda Byrne, she paid “The Secret” her highest compliment. “Watch it with your children,” she said, looking into the camera, narrowing her eyes for emphasis. “I think this would be amazing, to start your children with this kind of thinking—don’t you, Rhonda?”
The film that made Byrne a star—a spiritual leader, even—contains surprisingly little information about her. She appears on a gloomy street, with platinum hair and in a black sundress, lugging a suitcase. “A year ago, my life had collapsed around me,” she says, in voice-over. “I’d worked myself into exhaustion, my father died suddenly, and my relationships were in turmoil.” That started to change when Byrne’s daughter gave her a book about the law of attraction, which decrees that thoughts have physical power, and that thinking about something is the way to get it. If you want to stay poor, keep obsessing about your poverty; if you want to be rich, imagine yourself rich. The film consists mainly of interviews with motivational speakers and teachers—emissaries from the law-of-attraction industry. Joe Vitale, an ecumenical healer, strikes an exultant note. “You are the Michelangelo of your own life,” he says. “The David that you are sculpting is you.” And Esther Hicks, who emerges as the film’s guiding light, delivers a series of mini-sermons that have a strange, hypnotic force, owing partly to her faintly musical voice and untraceable accent. “You are the only one who creates your reality,” she says, nodding reassuringly. “For no one else can think for you. No one else can do it. It is only you.”
“The Secret” was released around the same time as the film version of “The Da Vinci Code,” and it was cleverly packaged as a historical mystery. There are lingering shots of faded cursive script on parchment paper, often accompanied by pounding drums or wordless choirs, and Byrne talks about “tracing the Secret back through history,” revealing all the great thinkers who have harnessed its power. (According to one title card, “The Secret was suppressed,” though we never learn how, or by whom.)
Eight months after the film came out, Byrne published a book, also called “The Secret,” which eventually sold more than nineteen million copies worldwide. It urges readers to rid themselves of illness through “harmonious thoughts,” to attract love by loving themselves, and to express gratitude for what they want before they get it. There are also scientific claims meant to demystify the law of attraction, although they invariably have the opposite effect. (“Thoughts are magnetic, and thoughts have a frequency. As you think, those thoughts are sent out into the Universe, and they magnetically attract all like things that are on the same frequency.”) And there are paeans to the mysterious power of joy. In one passage, Byrne offers seekers a grand bargain: “You can have whatever you want in your life, no limits. But there’s one catch: You have to feel good. And when you think about it, isn’t that all you ever want? The law is indeed perfect.”
The final pages of “The Secret” are given over to biographies of its teachers and inspirational figures, but Esther Hicks is not among them. By the time the book was published, Byrne and Hicks had parted ways, after a financial dispute; Hicks even disappeared from later versions of the DVD. Two months after endorsing “The Secret” on television, Winfrey conducted a sympathetic radio interview with Hicks, who said that she had been ill-treated by Byrne. “It felt to me like we were drawn in, in one way, and utilized, and then sort of discarded,” Hicks said. (She said that Byrne did some of the filming for “The Secret” on a cruise organized by Hicks and her husband, Jerry.) Then another teacher from “The Secret,” James Arthur Ray, made headlines last year after he led a sweat-lodge ceremony in Arizona that caused the deaths of three participants; Ray was arrested and charged with manslaughter. (He has pleaded not guilty.) By then, Winfrey had started distancing herself from the movement. When she returned to the topic for a 2008 show, she sounded a note of skepticism: “It’s been a year since ‘The Secret’ caused a worldwide stir. There were cheers for its focus on positive thinking, and some jeers for its emphasis on getting stuff, on getting cars and money and things.”
In an interview with Larry King, when the frenzy around “The Secret” was at its peak, Vitale, the healer, made a bold prediction. “I’m attracting a sequel,” he said. “So we’re going to have a sequel, one way or another.” The sequel to “The Secret” is called “The Power” (Atria; $23.95), and it has just arrived in bookstores as a No. 1 best-seller. Unfortunately for the likes of Vitale, “The Power” does away with teachers altogether; this time, Byrne is the sole guide, although she includes brief quotes from inspirational figures, most of whom are guaranteed not to sue her or embarrass her, being dead. It is no spoiler to reveal that “the power” Byrne has discovered is love, and that her basic thesis is a restatement of the law of attraction. It begins with a ringing proclamation—“You are meant to have an amazing life!”—and for two hundred and fifty pages the ringing never stops. If “The Secret” explained the law of attraction in slightly clinical terms, as a system, “The Power” explains it in more expressive terms, as a process. “Nothing is impossible for the force of love,” Byrne writes, and her task is to implore you to love more—more strategically, to be sure, and also more intensely. She is partial to list-making, both as a spiritual tool and as an authorial practice. “Make a written list of everything you love,” she writes:
Include the places you love, the cities, the countries, the people you love, colors you love, styles you love, qualities in people you love, companies you love, services you love, sports you love, athletes you love, music you love, animals you love, flowers, plants, and trees you love.
Byrne’s doctrine is ruthlessly simple, and efficient, too: it promises to collapse thousands of years of faith and science into a single thought.
One of the most telling epigraphs in “The Power” underscores the steely resolve that Byrne’s creed requires: “I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.” She attributes these words to Oscar Wilde, but it would be more accurate to attribute them to Wilde’s best-known creation, Dorian Gray. We are in Chapter 9; after Dorian’s cruelty has driven his true love to suicide, he decides to spend a pleasant evening at the opera. A friend is horrified at Dorian’s insensitivity, but Dorian offers no apologies. “If one doesn’t talk about a thing, it has never happened,” he says. “I am a man now. I have new passions, new thoughts, new ideas.”
Some of those new ideas weren’t so new. In 1836, half a century before “The Picture of Dorian Gray” appeared, Ralph Waldo Emerson published “Nature,” which included his famous call to arms: “There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.” Emerson’s treatise was a work of philosophy but also, avowedly, of self-help. “Build, therefore, your own world,” he urged. “As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions.” A generation of thinkers and seekers took up Emerson’s challenge, and by the end of the nineteenth century a loosely defined movement had emerged, taking its name from Emerson: New Thought.
One of the progenitors of the movement was a clockmaker from New England named Phineas Quimby, who was a firm believer in the occult powers of mesmerism and clairvoyance and faith healing, until, in the eighteen-fifties, he had a revelation: sick people could be healed solely by the belief that they would be. He taught students to reject faith in anything but faith itself. By the eighteen-eighties, the “mind-cure” movement had spread widely, although Quimby’s best-known patient and disciple, Mary Baker Eddy, the future founder of Christian Science, later insisted on the central importance of Biblical scripture, as well as her own writings. In this, she separated herself from her New Thought rivals, who viewed the existence of religious institutions as a hindrance. As Ralph Waldo Trine, one of the most popular New Thought writers, wrote in 1897, the law of attraction was bound to dissolve creedal squabbling:
Minor differences, narrow prejudices, and all these laughable absurdities will so fall away by virtue of their very insignificance, that a Jew can worship equally as well in a Catholic cathedral, a Catholic in a Jewish synagogue, a Buddhist in a Christian church, a Christian in a Buddhist temple. Or all can worship equally well about their own hearth-stones, or out on the hillside, or while pursuing the avocations of every-day life.
This urge to transcend religious difference is also an urge, thinly veiled, to transcend religion itself. In Trine’s utopia, every house of worship is equally valuable—which is to say, equally superfluous.
It was the creed of the self that would have its say. In “The Conquest of Poverty,” from 1899, a New Thought proponent named Helen Wilmans used language that any regular viewer of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” would recognize: “If search be short or long, I say, discover self! Then, know thyself, and then record a solemn vow and let it be, I can—I will—I dare—I do.” In 1910, Wallace D. Wattles published “The Science of Getting Rich,” which is the book that first got Byrne interested in the law of attraction. Wattles offers his readers some harsh-sounding advice: “Get rich; that is the best way you can help the poor.” By then, the New Thought success manual had become a genre of its own, a genre that concentrated less on what Trine called “the infinite” and more on the finite. Your fortunes were what you made of them: the secret was out.
In “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America” (Picador; $15), Barbara Ehrenreich subjects the new New Thought of Rhonda Byrne and others to scrutiny. She argues that “positive thinking has made itself useful as an apology for the crueler aspects of the market economy,” and she blames overly optimistic thinking for much of what alarms her about this country: the recent housing bubble, the protracted wars, the failure to take climate change seriously, and even Americans’ mediocre performance on a barrage of international happiness tests. She worries that our single-minded obsession with happiness is, contrary to the law of attraction, making us sad.
She came to the subject honestly, and painfully. After receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer, she was horrified to find herself beset by well-meaning therapists and fellow-patients and marketers, all of them urging her to accept “the gift of cancer” (which is the title of an upbeat book written by a survivor), to festoon herself with garish pink ribbons, and, above all, to stay positive. Her defiance of these directives seems both mischievous and righteous, although equally mischievous readers might recognize the outline of a rather conventional story. Most self-help books start this way, with frustration, and most of them end with the protagonist at peace, or closer to it, having reconciled herself to a more sophisticated form of the thing she started out by rejecting.
Ehrenreich is alert to the hidden demands of Byrne’s seemingly undemanding faith, which asks its followers to monitor their thoughts for evidence of negativity, much the way Calvinists once inspected their souls for signs that they were among the Preterite. She asks, “Why spend so much time working on oneself when there is so much real work to be done?” By “real work,” she means, for example, political activism; her main problem with positive thinking is that it does nothing to advance the project of political reform that she espouses, and might even retard it. (In the Presidency of George W. Bush, she sees the pitfalls of excessive optimism; of course, someone with different political priorities might level the charge at President Obama, whose 2008 campaign demonstrated one way to harness the political power of positive thinking.) She is offended, most of all, by the notion that “poverty is a voluntary condition,” and she accuses Byrne of “depraved smugness,” because of Byrne’s insistence that the law of attraction allows for no accidents and no exceptions, even for victims of a natural disaster, like the 2004 tsunami.
For Ehrenreich, the alternative to the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of justice—except you don’t have to choose. (This is the happy ending that astute readers knew was coming.) She promises that we can find a deeper, richer form of happiness by “shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world.” Social progress—and personal fulfillment—begins with casting out New Thought and its pernicious legacy.
In fact, for much of its history, New Thought was viewed as a progressive project—a way to help ordinary citizens seize control of their fate. The historian Beryl Satter has argued that New Thought was, in large part, a women’s movement, and one that reflected a pattern of shifting expectations. “Until the turn of the century, women’s New Thought texts only ambiguously praised desire and wealth,” Satter writes. “They could not be too overt, because late Victorians linked desire and wealth with manliness.” By the early years of the twentieth century, books and magazines had sprung up around the movement, with an increasingly practical bent. When New Thought writings shifted in emphasis from mastering desires to fulfilling them, they were presaging a feminist revolution.
And perhaps a more general one. Byrne’s cherished precursor Wallace Wattles was no apologist for the existing social order. The son of a Midwestern farmer, he was heavily influenced by the “social gospel” preacher George D. Herron, and in the years before he published “The Science of Getting Rich” he twice ran unsuccessfully for public office, in Indiana, as a candidate of the Socialist Party. “The Science of Getting Rich” is a self-help book, but it is also a political manifesto: it urges its readers to acknowledge not only the importance of wealth but also the arbitrary nature of its distribution. “Studying the people who have got rich,” Wattles writes, “we find that they are an average lot in all respects, having no greater talents and abilities than other men.” He portrays the economic élite as a parasitic class, the demise of which is a matter of historical inevitability: “The multi-millionaires are like the monster reptiles of the prehistoric eras; they play a necessary part in the evolutionary process, but the same Power which produced them will dispose of them.” Indeed, “Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, et al. . . . will soon be succeeded by the agents of the multitude, who will organize the machinery of distribution.” In one of the book’s more startling passages, he suggests that the proletariat use the law of attraction to attract a new era of communism:
If the workers of America chose to do so, they could follow the example of their brothers in Belgium and other countries, and establish . . . co-operative industries; they could elect men of their own class to office, and pass laws favoring the development of such co-operative industries; and in a few years they could take peaceable possession of the industrial field.
By such means, he believed, “the working class may become the master class.”
A century later, Byrne betrays little interest in workers’ coöperatives; Wattles’s radical influence appears in “The Secret” only in inverted form. Early in the book, a success coach named Bob Proctor poses a conspiratorial-sounding question: “Why do you think that one per cent of the population earns around ninety-six per cent of all the money that’s being earned?” He doesn’t quite have an answer (“It’s designed that way,” he says, ominously), and neither does Byrne. Where Wattles was convinced that the “plutocrats” were abusing their mental power, Byrne is more likely to conclude that they must be doing something right. Confronted with the injustice of the world, she can only promise, like many religious figures before her, that deliverance is almost at hand:
An epidemic worse than any plague that humankind has ever seen has been raging for centuries. It is the “don’t want” epidemic. People keep this epidemic alive when they predominantly think, speak, act, and focus on what they “don’t want.” But this is the generation that will change history, because we are receiving the knowledge that can free us of this epidemic!
This is the language of faith, not scientific theory or political struggle; it can’t be refuted, only disbelieved. But what makes Byrne’s creed so powerful isn’t simply that she offers revolution purged of politics; it’s that, in the best New Thought tradition, she offers religion purged of religion.
In 2007, during a show about “The Secret,” Winfrey took questions from the audience. “My husband and I, we’re Christians, and our kids are Christians,” one woman said. “I was wondering: Is God anywhere in this?”
One of Winfrey’s guests that day, a “non-aligned, trans-religious progressive” named Michael Beckwith, said, “ ‘The Secret’ doesn’t contradict any religion.” And Winfrey added her personal testimony. “I was raised a Christian, I still am a Christian,” she said. “The No. 1 question that I had was ‘How does all of this metaphysical thinking, this new way of taking responsibility for my life and co-creating my life with the Creator, how does that mesh with everything that I’ve been taught?’ And what I realized is exactly what they’re saying—is that it reinforces. Because, above all else, God gave us free will.”
The woman persisted: she said she believed in the existence of Heaven and Hell, and wondered whether that, too, was compatible with “The Secret.” This time, James Arthur Ray responded. “I totally honor your belief system,” he said. “But just consider that Jesus, the Christ, said the Kingdom of Heaven is within. . . . So is it possible to consider that the Kingdom of Hell is within as well?” This is Trine’s religious doctrine, restated warmly but firmly: all religious tenets are equally valuable, and equally illusory.
Perhaps the discussion might have gone differently if Esther Hicks had been there. In the original, pre-purged DVD of “The Secret,” she was identified with a four-word title: “The Teachings of Abraham.” Viewers weren’t told what that meant: Abraham is what Hicks has described as “a group consciousness from the non-physical dimension,” speaking through her. (Strictly, that musical voice and that untraceable accent are Abraham’s, not Hicks’s.) For Byrne’s purposes, Hicks’s belief system is too demanding, specific, and singular; which is to say, too religious. Winfrey herself seemed a bit spooked when, during one of her radio interviews with Hicks, the consciousnesses took over. “That’s why I thought I would do my virgin run with Abraham on the radio,” Winfrey said. “In case some weird ol’ thing happens.” Hicks—that is, Abraham—was cheerful and unperturbed. “We are not really as strange as all of that,” the group consciousness said.
Even without Hicks, the book version of “The Secret” is enlivened by an exotic spiritual subtext. Some photographs from that time show Byrne wearing a sparkly bindi on her forehead, and in the book she refers in passing to “all the great avatars throughout history,” casually positioning Wattles and the other New Thought pioneers as incarnations of the Hindu divine. Throughout, Byrne portrays herself as an open-minded seeker, illuminating a secret history that readers (and viewers) could discover along with her, and implying that much more remains undiscovered. At its best, “The Secret” is less a treatise than a treasure hunt.
By contrast, “The Power” unfolds as one long pep talk, underscoring Byrne’s increased confidence in her own pronouncements. In one passage, she advises readers to imagine that the front of a dollar bill is the “positive side,” associated with “plenty of money,” and the back is the “negative side,” associated with “a lack of money.” Accordingly, she suggests a ritual: “Each time you handle money, deliberately flip the bills so the front is facing you. Put bills in your wallet with the front facing you. When you hand over money, make sure the front is facing upward.” One can imagine devotees in the distant future holding fast to this practice and repeating this explanation to one another, doing this in remembrance of her. Certainly, she is a grander and more remote presence now than she was three years ago, not least because she has gone into media seclusion. In the weeks before the publication of “The Power,” the publishers announced that Byrne “chooses not to do interviews.” All we have is the scripture.
An alert reader of that scripture might notice some subtle changes in Byrne’s approach. More of the epigraphs come from writers identified as Christians than from writers identified as scientists, or as non-Christian religious figures. The turn-of-the-century New Thought movement, not least Wattles, is well represented, to be sure, but the final epigraph comes from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the maverick Jesuit philosopher and mystic.
Another clue is hidden in the acknowledgments section, in which Byrne reserves her highest accolades for “Angel Martín Velayos, whose spiritual light and faith causes me to lift myself to new levels so that I can fulfill my dream of bringing joy to billions.” Velayos turns out to be the name of the imperator of the Rose Cross Order, a religious group based in the Canary Islands. The order is one of a number of groups aligned with Rosicrucianism, a mystical movement that traces its roots to early seventeenth-century Europe. At times in his writing, Velayos sounds as if he could be a long-lost teacher of “The Secret”—he holds that “when a person is in harmony with the Cosmic the result is balance, health, peace, harmony, etc.”—and Byrne’s interest in Rosicrucianism isn’t new. In the opening scene of “The Secret,” the camera zooms in on the first page of a yellowing treatise, and a blizzard of words fly by. Watch it in slow motion and you’ll see that one of those words is “Rosicrucian.”
There is nothing odd about Byrne’s growing inclination toward Christian mysticism. What is odd is that the doctrine she propounds has no room for it, just as “The Secret” had no room for the story of Hicks-as-Abraham. Byrne must be one of the most influential religious writers in the world, and yet she seems to consider her own evolving religious beliefs to be unmentionable.
The creed promulgated by “The Secret” and “The Power” is finally noteworthy not for its audacity—many religions promise more—but for its modesty, its thinness. In distilling a spiritual message that claims to be compatible with all religious traditions, Byrne has had to bracket all possible points of disagreement, discarding anything that might seem, as Winfrey put it, “weird.” The result is a pair of religious books curiously devoid of ancient lore and esoteric beliefs, history and holiness—curiously devoid of religion itself. Byrne’s hope is that this minimalist creed will be enough for her readers. But surely some of them will notice that it doesn’t seem to be enough for her.